Bruges – 4. City of Light


The French under Napoleon ruled Bruges from 1795 until 1814 when the area became part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. That only lasted until Belgium gained its independence in 1830. French was initially the official language, but Flemish was recognised by the start of the twentieth century. It is the principal language of Brugge and northern Belgium. 

Bruges makes a fine character in a novel. The quays, the labyrinth of streets and canals, the Beguinage, churches and belfries, the real and reflected appear simultaneously in the visual and written world. In Rodenbach’s novel, photographs are used to add an extra dimension to this identity.

IMG_4756“Bruges was his dead wife. And his dead wife was Bruges. The two were united in a like destiny. It was Bruges La Morte, the Dead City, entombed in its stone quays, with the arteries of its canals cold once the great pulsing of the sea had ceased beating in them.”

Words, image and mood melt into a form of music. Stand anywhere in Bruges and sense the still water of the canals, search for the distant pulsing of the ocean. Look into the depths, and see them stare brazenly back. Hugue is smitten with Jane, the dancer. who, as in a mirror, is a reflection of his late wife. An actress is but a mirror, fashioning the face of your heart’s desire. You have used that mirror and, when you think of it, everyone loves themselves. Narcissus is portrayed, too ardent by far, mesmerised by his own reflection in a pool. So, when Hugue commutes with his wife through a mirror, with whom is he really talking? And when Hugue strangles Jane, his wife’s reflection, who is it that he kills?


On the second evening I dine in a place called the Old Bruges. One side looks onto a little square where the canal turns, the other onto the now quiet Vismarkt. I order Flemish Stew which is a goulash equivalent, and a few steins of beer. Beer is expensive, but it’s strong, with a rich variety available throughout the city. And, I suppose, a certain unreliability of narration may ensue, here or there.

Nearby, a young Australian holds court. I overhear most of the conversation, without committing it to memory all that accurately. It was enjoyable more in the manner of an abstract painting, or a drum solo. The story includes a dwarf and a prostitute. The narrator’s acquaintance prompts, jovially, that the line should read: a dwarf and a prostitute walk into a bar. Who knows where this is heading. Who shall give and who receive? Does someone call them a pink lady and a small one? 


The story merges in my head with McDonagh’s narrative In Bruges, wherein Colin Farrell’s character befriends a vertically challenged actor during a Bacchanalian interlude. The dwarf will intervene with devastating and ironic effect in the film’s denouement. Farrell has, after all, killed a small boy, an altar boy, in his botched assignment. This macabre dance with death circles the dizzying spire of Our Lady’s, where love and sacrifice are given expanded meaning. Farrell, no more enamoured of the city, complains he doesn’t ‘want to die in Bruges’.Or perhaps he’s just curious for more. 

Later, I am in Delaney’s Bar, seated next to a couple from the nearby Dutch town of Breda, a place I know of vaguely. There was a battle there, long, long ago. It features in a book by Carlos Perez Reverte. They have a festival based on the colour orange, which probably dates back to King Billy. As the dry heat of the day wanes to a cooler humidity. It will rain, says the young man. But when? Oh, give it ten minutes. In his hand, the screen on his phone shows a jagged peak within the next ten minutes. We wait, and it comes to pass. These are the days of miracle and wonder, so it is no surprise that people can capture electricity in their hands and with it arrogate the magic power of prediction. Here was a man with the power of rain in his hands. I asked him could he make it stop, as I was about to make my way home. But he laughed and said that no, he could not.


I sloped off by way of colonnades and the shelter of trees, the cobbles slick with rainwater and electric light. That was when I found myself lost, if you catch my drift. In the giddy valley of cathedral spires and teetering turrets, the alleys threw themselves into ever increasing spirals, farther and farther away. I asked directions of a waiter, who had retreated from the heat of the kitchen for the balm of a well earned smoke. He pointed me back the way I had come. Reluctant to accept this defeat, I returned to where I had spied a sliver of canal slip behind some buildings and took what I judged to be a parallel lane. Dark, deserted, and eminently paranoia inducing, it twisted and turned before curving at last onto Rosenhoedkai. I was no longer lost, but not quite found.


A love struck Romeo sings the streets a serenade,

laying everybody low, with a love song that he’s made,

finds a convenient streetlight, steps out of the shade,

says something like, you and me babe, how about it ,,,

Stars spring from the canal depths. Along the quays, nighttime beckons. I’ve been whistling past the graveyard so that the melody haunts me still. An opera for our age, terse and tunnelling through our formation. Mark Knopfler singing, as an aria should, of love and an Italian girl.


All I do is miss you, and the way we used to be,

all I do is keep the beat and the bad company,

all I do is kiss you, through the bars of a rhyme,

Julie, I’ll do the stars with you, anytime.

The next day I return to the old city walls to complete my semi-circling of the city. The eastern precinct includes the Coupure and the outer canal. This houses larger and more long haul canal craft. You can book canal tours here but the atmosphere is distinctly local and feels remote from the bustling tourist scene at the centre. My camera battery went kaput at the same time, so I’ve only my soul and memory to call upon, which seems about right.


I had intended availing of the Breydelhof’s free bicycle, but these boots are made for wandering, and who knows where they’ll take me. Last night I was lost in Bruges, and today I try for a similar state in daylight. With some success. Crossing old tracks I experience the pleasure of recognition, the uncertain traveller’s concept of home.

Mainly, I was distracted by my own meditations. As evening waxed, I had been thinking of the possibility of finding God in a bar, as Joan Osborne might have speculated.

If God was one of us

just a stranger on the bus, just a slob like one of us,

trying to make his way home.

I must find my way back up to heaven all alone. God might be in the next bar, which is pulsing unsteadily across the Vismarkt. Slouched there at the corner peering into the shrinking muniscus of his pint, apart from the crowd and not exactly pleased to see me. Catching him there, I could ply him with drink, insist on answers to those great questions: why are we born to suffer and die, where might I find the Golden Fountainhead. It must be here somewhere, in this city of chocolate, waffles, and fine beers. 


There is an Argentine restaurant on Flammingstraat, north of the Market Square. They serve steak, grilled to perfection. Within the darkwood interior, evening sunlight intrudes in a solid shaft, a slant off the horizontal. We are all reduced to silhouettes. It is the perfect condition for the near slumber of after dinner. My stein of beer still froths. I look down the room towards the window. Other diners dance mellowly in the glare while theatrical gauchos flit in attendance or ennuie. I am briefly blinded by the glare, abruptly occluded by my waiter. We share an acknowledgement, and as he moves aside, I see at last, the Golden Fountainhead.brug4fhead

Bruges – 2. Morning Reflections

Bruges Boat

The boat trip is a recommended introduction to the city. Available at most quays in the centre, it costs ten euro for the half hour trip and is well worth it. The boats are small, slung low in the water  and fit a dozen or so. Close your mind to the cameras and apparel, drag a finger through the water and see the brick rise up from the canal, glowing with the centuries. Merchant palaces and church spires soar like impossible crystals above the reddish brick. A couple converse with a woman beside me, they in English, she in French. There is understanding and mystery, smiles and photographs. If you are a participant in the permanently picturesque, you harmonise with the painting that is emerging. The French woman is young or old, depending on the quaysides that we pass. The English couple are occasionally dappled with the shadows of Flemish dress, awaiting the caress of the artists brush. On disembarking, my companions are puzzling over arrangements for a place to dine, caught in a pantomime of gestures and smiles. 


I drift off to a cafe promising a hearty breakfast. The next half hour or so is rich in elements of Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch. There were no sausages, and the rashers dematerialised too. Egg and bread remained, however, and a cup of tepid coffee. 

From the 14th century Brugge attained a prominent position as the capital of Flanders. The world’s first stock exchange was set up here by the Van Der Bourse family, attaching their name to the trade ever since. The 15th century became the city’s golden age, commerce and art flourished and Bruges produced such artists as Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck; the Flemish Primitives. The name Primitives is a bit misleading. These were pioneers in the art of oil painting and were stunning, meticulous representationalists. There is an excellent collection of their work, and other later Flemish and Belgian masters at the Groeninge Museum off Rozenhoed Quay.


Brugge went into decline in the 16th century as neighbouring Ghent prospered.The city became a sleepy backwater, ironically a fact which contributed to the preservation of its medieval charm. The isolation and stagnation inspired the Symbolist novel Bruges La Mort by George Rodenbach in 1892. This lit the flame of its revival as a tourist destination, though Bruges is gloomily characterised as the city of death. The story tells of a man, Hugues, who mourns the death of his young wife. He keeps a Temple of Memories including paintings, photos and a long lock of her hair. Within his grief he also becomes obsessed with a dancer he sees at the opera, Robert Le Diablo, Robert the Devil. The dancer, Jane, bears a close resemblance to his wife and after some awkward courting he invites her home.

More recently, the film In Bruges, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, sets Bruges as a noirish backdrop against a tragi-comedy of love and death. This more than anything was a factor in my resolution to visit.


Certainly, these days Bruges in summer is thronged by visitors, but it isn’t overrun. There’s so much to see, and room to see it, that it is a flaneuers dream. Up, down and sideways, you can bathe your eyes pleasantly in Bruges. And, as in any city worth its salt, that includes a visit to the premier art gallery for a journey into the past. The 18th century was the city’s Austrian period and this era saw the foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts which formed the basis for the collection in the Groening Museum. This museum, within a maze of gardens and courtyards, seems small from without, but within holds a wealth of material. Headphones are free, and give an excellent account, free of the artspeak that often bedevils these devices.


On entering the Groeninge, first up is a painting by Antoon Claessens: Mars, Surrounded by the Arts and Sciences. Here, the painter exhorts the liberal arts above ignorance, with Mars centre stage, trampling on a donkey-eared ignoramus as the muses of the various arts gather around. The painting pitches for the inclusion of painting and drawing on this exalted platform. 

Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon from 1436, shows all the mastery of detail and rendering, while unifying the work in serene and bold composition. Stepping into these paintings is a journey back in time to the heyday of Brugge, its dreaming spires and palaces, its surging commercial life, and most importantly its people. Religion is to the fore, with strong connections to the spirit world. Sitters are accompanied by their patron saint.


In Jan Provoost’s triptych only the outer wings remain, telling an intriguing, if partial story of the donor and his wife. As was the custom, the sitters are portrayed with their patron saints in tow. Here, the Donor is accompanied by Saint Nicholas, his wife by Saint Godalieve. Godalieve is a patron saint of Bruges itself and here she appears in the foreground with a scarf wound around her neck. In the background, she is pictured being strangled with this scarf by henchmen of her husband. This story is echoed in Rodenbach’s novel. As Jane tires of her lover’s obsession with his dead wife, she teases him and mocks his Temple of Memories, finally taking a step too far as she dances with the lock of Hugue’s wife’s hair. Hugue, enraged, descends into delirium, and strangles Jane with the lock of hair. On the reverse, a different narrative unfolds. This stark, graphic tableau portrays the man exchanging money with a live skeleton. A faustian deal, perhaps, buying time from death. In the backgeound, the artist is portrayed in stern disapproval.


Much of the work of the Flemish masters depicts the ethical conflicts in life. Cautionary tales of terrible retribution on corrupt persons in trade and law. One judge gets flayed alive in graphic detail for taking bribes. In Bosch’s Last Judgement, the retribution comes from God, the consolations of the good life being the reward of paradise, the punishment for venality the horrors of hell. The Breughel’s, Pieter the Elder and Younger, root their work in the daily struggles, and celebrations of life. In such startling detail and vivacity that we’d swear they smelt of brewing and woodsmoke, of crackling snow and glowing ovens, our bellies full or empty but all the time throbbing with the stuff of being alive. 

The ages slip away as I float through the gothic and romantic, and glimpse the seductive reefs of surrealism. Paul Delveux and Rene Magritte paint mindscapes in appropriate reflex of our modern condition.


Outside the brackets of the museum, that wondrous timewarp, the world throbs and whirls in its relentless mayhem. But there is solace too. I might search for love or happiness, and all the contradictions that quest embodies. I might search for myself but will need first to become lost. There might be a perfect moment, or even a chance to find the Golden Fountainhead. Anything seems possible here. Without a route to take me, I flow with the human river, and come to the Boniface Bridge. This is a magnet for lovers, and they pose at its apex anxious to draw down its benign influence, and that somehow a photograph might capture their soul in all the timeless ambience it generates.